The Elephant Keepers’ Children
By Peter Hoeg
“I have found a door out of the prison.”
So begins this tale full of adventure, intrigue, unexpected humor, and the search for transcendence. Peter, Tilte, and Hans grew up in a rectory. Their father is the pastor of a church on the tiny island of Fino, and their mother plays the organ when she’s not busy inventing gadgets. Both of their parents are elephant keepers, by which the children mean that they “have something inside them that is much bigger than themselves and over which they have no control.” This has led, in the past, to the concoction of fake miracles and at least one brush with the law. When their parents disappear, the children know that the elephants inside them must be driving them to do something desperate.
Peter tells the story, though he is largely dragged along by his older sister, Tilte, who says that teachers only complain about her “because they feel squeezed by the breadth of my personality.” This personality and her ability to turn every situation on its head with a few words add a sense of madcap hilarity to the proceedings as the children escape from the authorities, search for clues to their parent’s plans, and enact a rescue mission.
The story is told conversationally, and with multiple digressions per chapter, so that at times the whole thing can seem like a labyrinth of words. But the tangents are rarely pointless, even if the point is something more philosophical than immediately relevant to the plot. Be prepared to go along for the ride, even when it’s unclear where you’re heading.
As they travel in search of an answer to their problem, they meet characters from a variety of religious backgrounds, the island of Fino being a virtual paradise of religious diversity. Most of the people they meet end up helping them, willingly or not, because these children are difficult to deny.
“There is a verse of the Koran,” says one character. “It says that small devils are often the worst. And yet they require the greatest mercy.”
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Review by Danny Hanbery